Arts & Culture

For Germans, Schvitz Is A Science

Well, it’s a foggy day here at the Castle. Perfect opportunity to head to the Mineralbad in Stuttgart. While Bochum is one of the ugliest cities in Europe, Stuttgart is only moderately ugly. Mostly destroyed during the war, it has … Read More

By / October 23, 2008

Well, it’s a foggy day here at the Castle. Perfect opportunity to head to the Mineralbad in Stuttgart. While Bochum is one of the ugliest cities in Europe, Stuttgart is only moderately ugly. Mostly destroyed during the war, it has rebuilt itself as one of the wealthiest cities in Germany thanks to the Mercedes plant located nearby. And you see it on your way in: everyone has a car, usually a pretty swank and sleek one specially designed for the infamous German autobahn. At first it seems like there isn’t a lot to do in Stuttgart. But dig a little deeper, and I find the city growing on me. They have a few nice cafes, some surprisingly good Eritrean restaurants, and the delightful local Schwabian food – famous for its egg noodles with cheese, i.e., kase spaetzle. Stuttgart has some of the best opera and ballet in Europe, an excellent theatre house, and some great designer clothing stores. But my favourite thing to do in Stuttgart is to go to the Leuze Mineral baths. The Leuze is done in a hideous 70s design – two giant baby blue lightning bolts come out of the roof to announce that you’re here. It’s on the Neckar River, across from an ancient amusement park and the zoo. This ain’t no sauna in the Redwoods in California. But no matter. Because what’s inside is absolutely fantastic. The German Sauna experience is not at all like a North American visit to the local JCC or YMCA. First of all, clothing is not an option. I learned this my first day when I was taken by a female friend of mine. I entered the sauna in my bathing suit to find 40 other fat and not-so fat men and women crammed onto the benches. A rather large elderly gentleman leaned over to me and snickered in German, “Bathing suits are for the pool.” Germans like being naked and the sauna is a good example of their comfort with the body. It certainly isn’t a sexual experience; it’s simply too bloody hot to check other people out (though when I went with my African-American friend, Sanford, there were a few curious eyes turned his way). What is great about Leuze is there are 7 different dry saunas, each of varying size, temperature and lighting. And the reason why I am now officially addicted, and go week after week for my two hours of sauna, is the German Aufguss. The Aufguss is a somewhat masochistic event that involves an Aufgusser, an employee of the Leuze, who basically sizzles the participants into a frenzied sweat. Every twenty minutes, in rotating saunas, people cram in. Nobody wants to miss the event and you have to get there a few minutes early if you want a good seat – or a seat at all, if it’s a popular day for sauna-ing (Saturday night is pretty happening). Then the Aufgusser closes the door. And it begins. He or she will make a speech in German: “Hello, my name is Hans, and today I am going to put on a little rosemary-citron essential oil onto the rocks. The event will last five to eight minutes, and should be good for your lungs and throat. I hope you enjoy your Aufguss.” Then Hans (or Henrietta, or Hassan) opens the door and starts to wheel his towel around to circulate the air. After this he takes a large metal bowl filled with water and his essential oil of choice. He then ladles several cups of the liquid onto the rocks. The steam starts to rise, the vapors get in deep, and you’re slowly turning into roast-man. People are not allowed to talk during the Aufguss – this is a serious event bordering on spiritual. It gets hotter and hotter, and it doesn’t stop. Hans then takes a wet towel and twirls it in the air, increasing the intensity of the heat and getting the vapors even deeper into us. He does another round of ladling. And just when you think you can’t take it anymore, he takes his towel and unfolds it, and basically whips air at the Aufguss-goers. There is a traditional response to this towel-whipping: us sauna-goers raise our hands above our heads. I kind of feel like I’m being crucified or beaten in these moments – sometimes the heat gets so intense that the skin actually hurts. A good Aufgusser, however, doesn’t let it get quite that hot – and at the end of the Aufguss, Hans or Henrietta announces that the Aufguss is over, and he hopes everyone is happy. He wishes us a nice afternoon. Then we all break into applause and do our best not to stumble when we leave. Lounging outside, looking at the polluted Neckar or the dead ferris wheel or the endless traffic, the aesthetics of Stuttgart don’t seem to really matter. A bit of man-made snow on the back, and a bit of awe for the Aufgusser, who does one Aufguss after another for hours on end, wearing shorts and a t-shirt. Maybe you speak to a friend or you read a book or simply look at the sky. Maybe you go for a swim in the natural mineral baths, or soak your feet in their healing waters. Thoughts evaporate, as do the toxicities. Lying naked in the rain, snow or sun, I prefer not to think at all as I wait for the next Aufguss.

Jonathan Garfinkel, author of Ambivalence: Adventures in Israel and Palestine, is guest-blogging on Jewcy, and he’ll be here all week. Stay tuned.