The good life, the naked life

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 12.04.2019

In America, there is a hazy understanding that Europeans are constantly naked. It somehow seems hard to disprove, given our wider image of Europeans: an unrepressed people who believe very deeply in wine, sex, marijuana, and (for some reason) techno music. Why, indeed, should such an open and experiential society fear their own bodies? Rumour has it that Europeans are walking around naked on beaches and in saunas, in unabashed view of perfect strangers. From across the Atlantic, we are deeply scandalized, frightened, and jealous.

In practice, most Europeans are clothed most of the time. However, they truly are not when in the sauna, which incidentally is the most important platform of public nudity. Nowhere is more indescribably European than a continental sauna, where ministers, deadbeats, and journalists all sweat together in wary company.

The importance of the sauna as a cultural marker has everything to do with European wellness, of which, as an ancient and honoured restorative, it remains a cornerstone. Perhaps not everybody partakes in a good Sunday steam, but the number of wellness hotels does suggest that someone must be getting naked in them fairly frequently. Meanwhile, in the States, nobody knows what a wellness hotel is, as we don’t really have them. Maybe they don’t exist because we fear our own nudity, or maybe we fear our own nudity because they don’t exist – but, either way, “wellness” has a whole other meaning to us. It is more often associated with yoga, meditation, vitamins, juice cleanses, and natural foods. Nothing that looks bad in the mirror.

It turns out that “wellness” is a tricky set of ideas to define. Confusingly, the English word is used in other languages, misconstruing the concept as a universal one. It is not. Various cultures seem to have transposed it differently, to suit local beliefs about medicine, health, and psyche. In America, wellness isn’t for everyone: it’s a cult of B12 pushers, smoothie worshippers, and yoga preachers. Prepare for lectures about seaweed wraps and photos of last year’s detox retreat in Thailand. Time to meet your inner self and go on a Neanderthal diet consisting purely of rabbit protein and boiled twigs.

The European concept of wellness, however, is immensely enticing to Americans, though we little associate it with that word. Rather, we dream of moving to Europe to leave behind those wellness freaks – we imagine a slower existence in which we, and the whole community, will work less, eat better, and enjoy life. Indeed, the continent is widely fetishized into a haven of simple joys, whose denizens are unhurried and unworried and wise in matters of human happiness. They pass their days eating fresh tomatoes and luxuriating in the shade of lime trees; they drink a bottle of wine a day and live to be a hundred.

Such tropes are recurrent in books and movies: a retiree disappears into southern France and discovers the meaning of life, a businessperson invests in a Spanish hamlet that ends up yielding far more than money, and so on. Even murder mysteries set in Europe are written in a mood of uncanny mystique, not always befitting of cold-hearted crime (“the sun shone on distant lavender fields that rippled like a purple sea – as I walked through a grove of olive trees, nibbling on a fresh pasticciotto from the village bakery, I suddenly discovered the bloody corpse of Isabella Maria Francesca Bianchi.”)

These vicarious stories are popular for showing us our own romanticized take on European life. We wouldn’t call it wellness but that’s what it is: in Europe, whole societies appear to contain a gentle, mainstream idea of wellness that encourages mental and physical restoration: getting naked (proudly) in the sauna, moderating the size of meals, working thirty-five-hour weeks, traveling every August. Even those who do discover a dead body in a charming olive tree grove are offered a number of ways to balance out their everyday stresses.

Many of us are aware that not all of Europe exists in the shade of a lime tree, but myths of the easy life persist nonetheless. Such idyllic visions naturally obscure the butt-ends of society, which is why the sauna is an exceptional cultural marker: its curative and relaxing properties are characteristic of the myth, and yet its butts are not obscured at all. It is the starkest manifestation of European wellness, and Americans who believe they can embrace life across the ocean must stop fantasizing about fruit trees and give themselves a more serious test: could you sit and sweat, as naked as a turkey, in a tiny room into which any of your neighbours or colleagues may pantlessly burst at any moment?

If yes, then pack up your wardrobe. A towel and some flip flops should be enough.

Jeffrey Palms
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