There are few things more sinister than an 18-stone naked German appearing at the door of a sauna you’re sat in rolling a towel like a horse whip. Of all the things I learnt during our first proper foray into the world of family skiing holidays, this was perhaps the most important but unexpected. The other was never let yourself get caught in an Austrian sauna ritual. And if you do, make sure you don’t sit on the bottom bench.
Clearly neither of these lessons have anything to do with kids nor family holidays, a subject I’ve written about before. This is partly due to how well the boys got on with it, especially Dylan who even returned home with a ski race trophy, partly the kid-friendliness of the hotel we were in and most definitely the fact we had Grampy with us as an extra pair hands.
But it’s mainly down to the depth of trauma my unwitting sauna experience has caused me.
The first thing to note is that in Austria, it turns out, clothes and saunas don’t mix. So, when Laura and I first ventured up to the hotel’s 7th floor spa, we were greeted by a sign telling us that it was not only a kid-free zone, but a ‘textile-free’ one too. At which point, Laura turned to me, stage whispered “does that mean naked?” then “I just saw a penis”, before tightening her dressing gown around her as if a cold wind had suddenly blown through the building and getting straight back in the lift.
I was on my own. Well, sort of.
Stepping inside, I quickly identified three types of people. The rule-breaking prudes steadfastly sweating it out in their one pieces. (Mainly Brits and Americans.) The people rejoicing not just in their own nakedness but in sharing it with dozens of strangers they’d be seeing at the breakfast buffet 12 hours later. (Austrians, Germans, Dutch and fat people.) And, finally, the middle ground that I decided to park myself in: a quick strip, then a towel round the waist to keep things classy.
Towel in place, I made my way into the Finnish sauna…and arrived at a scene resembling the results of turning up the heat in a butcher’s freezer. A moist sea of wrinkled, reddening, drooping flesh. But even I knew opening the door to enter only to re-open it immediately to depart is poor sauna etiquette, so instead I squeezed myself into a corner, taking care to keep my eyes level, hands raised and balance perfect.
It was as I sat down that the man I later discovered to be known as ‘The Master’ appeared at the door brandishing his towel. It’s hard to do this guy justice in words. Just try to picture a cross between Leatherface from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and a fat Dale Winton.
Whereas my reaction to his sudden arrival was to reach for the emergency button, the rest of my naked brethren were enraptured. And as the cheers died down, The Master set to work.
The worst bit was when he forced hot air at everyone individually by flapping his towel at us, having moments earlier removed it from around his own glistening crotch. The other low point (and let’s be clear, there were many) was when, during a third bout of ear-popping heat brought on by him repeatedly drenching the coals in water and swinging his towel like a lasso, the group raised their hands above their heads as if riding a rollercoaster and made sex noises. Body parts wobbled. Sweat flew…then pooled. And my life flashed before my eyes.
Even the blessed end of it wasn’t, well, the end of it. In a naked sauna, the exit is far more treacherous than anything else. Steadfastly tucked into my corner on the bottom bench as The Master’s acolytes made to leave, I was forced to dodge and duck several times to avoid being pistol whipped in the worst way imaginable.
Naturally, on my return to the sanctuary of our room, Laura’s sympathy was minimal. After all, she had been sensible enough to beat a hasty retreat. I, on the other hand, was left trying not to let whole experience cloud an otherwise brilliant week.
And there, in fact, is the bright side. After moaning many times about the frustrations of going away with kids in the past, I have now learned perspective. Compared to naked sauna rituals, family holidays are a doddle.