On Getting Naked and Driving Fast

Not necessarily in that order.

Getting Naked Driving Fast
Lambert/Getty Images/ullstein bild/ullstein bild

Last fall, I got a magazine assignment to drive a sports car on the Autobahn. The magazine didn’t know that I’m bad at driving fast, and that I don’t even really enjoy it. Now they know, and it looks like they won’t be hiring me again. Regardless, I took the gig for the main reason people take gigs, because it paid. I’d do the best I could, given my limited abilities. Once again, I was checking items off someone else’s bucket list.

But my week in Germany wasn’t all insane speed that I didn’t need or want. On the train to Cologne from the Frankfurt Airport, I found a German travel magazine that listed several of the country’s best spas. Even though I could only read every third word in the article, I understood that one of the places, Claudius Therme, was a public bathhouse fewer than four miles from the crummy highway motel where I’d be staying, and that a day soaking in its glories would cost me about $20. At that point, I understood my destiny.

After I picked up the car, a delicious and obscure Lexus GS-F, in Cologne, I had a few hours to engage my favorite activity: schvitzing. No matter where I go in the world, I love to take the waters, and I always have. I enjoy Russian baths, Turkish hammams, mountain hot springs, fancy steam rooms, and questionable hot tubs at the Sheraton. But since I’m half German—my father’s parents were both German immigrants—nowhere do I feel more at home getting sweaty than in Deutschland. When fate hands me a German assignment, I find a way to incorporate bathhouses into my life.

I drove the GS-F through mid-day traffic, haltingly, because I hadn’t yet figured out how to switch the GPS into English. When I arrived, I parked in a tight spot in a gravel lot beneath an overpass, which I’m sure is what Lexus was hoping that I’d do with their $95,000 machine. And then I entered heaven.

Claudius Therme, so named because it’s built on the site of an ancient Roman hot springs, has a vast central area of pools, many of which seemed to be occupied by large women doing exercises with foam noodles. I settled into a trough of sulfury rust-colored water alongside a half-dozen sixtysomething females. Never have I felt happier or more at home.

After an hour of stinky soaking, I walked outside and saw a collection of log cabins in a semi-circle. I walked into one. There sat three fat naked old fraus. One of them looked at my besotted bathing suit and shouted:

“NO TEXTILES!”

“I was just going to dry it off,” I said.

“NEIN!”

OK, OK.

I stripped off my suit and sat nudely on the tiny towel that I’d received when I checked in. Ten minutes passed. People started entering the hut. First it was a few, then it was more, and soon, dozens of people were sitting on the rafters, men and women of all ages and shapes, all of them butt-naked, lining up ass-cheek to ass-cheek. Finally, when I was at the point where I couldn’t move without slapping a stranger’s thigh-flesh, I said:

“Is there something going on?”

Much laughter resounded through the hut.

“Oh yes,” someone said. “Infusion.”

The sauna was full, on all three tiers. A healthy-looking young woman appeared, wrapped in a blue towel. She gave a speech in German. I asked her to repeat it in English. She sighed:

“I will translate,” she said. “Briefly. I put water on the rocks. The water is scented. It will get very hot.”

She started laconically whipping a wet towel around the room, creating a microwave-level of heat. The lodge smelled of lavender potpourri, like Hobby Lobby. It went on like that, infusion and towel, infusion and towel. The naked Germans sat all around me huffing and moaning, yet it was decidedly unerotic. My fellow Teutons and I collectively purged through our pores.

Finally, our hostess opened the door. She left and returned holding a two-tier wooden tray, which held little plastic cups. She said something in German and then looked at me and said, “you may choose one: Honey, or salt.”

This is the greatest day of my life! I thought.

I chose honey, and I rubbed that cup-o-nectar all over my body in a room full of 60 naked Germans who were doing the exact same thing, and yet it still wasn’t particularly sexual in there. This was worth $20. It was worth $200. It was maybe even worth $2000.

She whipped the towel around some more, and then, mercifully, we were done. We left the hut. Wooden buckets filled with ice had been spread around the patio. I put ice on my right arm, then my left arm, then my right leg, then my left leg, then my head, as a German man instructed me to do.

“It is for the circulation,” he said. Always do what the Germans tell you. They are sensible.

I sat in a lounge chair, panting like a hound.

The hostess came over.

“Now we go back,” she said.

“Back?” I said.

“Very short,” she said. “And very hot.”

All the nude people returned to the lodge. Our hostess dumped a massive infusion on the rocks. And then she started whipping that towel over her head super-fast, like Wonder Woman. I was plotzing.

“Oh God,” I moaned.

“Don’t cry, weak American,” she said.

And then it was over.

I sat around in a skimpy robe drinking water for a half-hour, got dressed, and drove the GS-F out into rush hour traffic, feeling tremendously relaxed. I loved that car. I loved all cars! I loved everything. Most of all, I loved sitting naked in a room with German people. Nothing relaxes me more.

Four days later, after repeatedly cheating death on hundreds of miles of limitless-speed German highways, I returned the GS-F undamaged. I had one night in Cologne before flying out. There was only one thing I wanted to do.

Claudius Therme was walking distance from my hotel. I did the 2.5 kilometers, whistling the whole way, gleefully awaiting my next nude infusion. I may never get to drive a sports car on the Autobahn again, but I’ll schvitz until I die.