The first time you come to the sauna of Stadtbad Mitte, the Bauhaus bath complex on Gartenstraße, certain things take getting used to. If you are from an English-speaking country, perhaps you are not used to the space being mixed, both men and women, and naked. If you are from the South, perhaps you are unnerved by the silence, that people here stare right through one another. For my own part, I am getting used to the rapid changes in temperature.
First, let’s freeze. There’s the ice plunge, rimmed in steel. You emerge shivering, gasping. Patches of colour fall on your skin from the four windows of stained glass (1930) that depict the seasons. You look to winter: the image of a man with an icy beard and hooded head, and you reach for your towel.
Now, let’s roast. Look to the window depicting summer: the same man is younger, relaxed, warmed by sunlight. All around him is abundance. But it’s not so easygoing here in the heat: your skin now prickling, each pore sealed shut, glazed it seems with ice, and then burnt open with the heat of the Aufguss, water poured on the rocks and hot air forced over our shoulders with a towel by the attendant. No one can come and go during these long sessions of suffocating endurance. We sweat together, but there is hardly the sound of a grunt or a sigh. Because Berliners do not come to the sauna to share and socialise. ‘Ruhe bitte’ (Silence please), says the note on the door. You absorb the high temperatures silently, and sweat out your silence. You are burning out your desire to speak.
A Swedish man arrives, new to the city, and engages everyone in conversation, without much success, and finds himself talking only to the other foreigners.
‘They’re a little cold, aren’t they, the Germans’, he confesses to me later. And I reply that I wish they talked more, but that’s not why they come here. ‘In Sweden, the sauna is a place to socialise’, he tells me, shaking his head.
When he leaves the sauna, I feel emboldened to chat with two young men, Kumpels, proletarian buddies, who are timing their steam sauna session. I think I saw their painting clothes hanging on a peg in the changing room. They are immaculately depilated and sit in severe silence. They don’t reply when I ask them whether they are comfortable with the temperature.
This introversion would have bothered me a year or even two years ago. Now, I do not expect anything from these strangers and respect their desire to be left alone. I am used to it, I know that I cannot force my expectations, my chumminess, on them. Other sauna guests pass by, defiantly silent, and I wonder whether I have spent too much time in Berlin, I realise it hardly bothers me anymore that no one speaks.
The long patches of colour stream through the windows onto the tiles of the Bauhaus-era space, and it’s back to the cold plunge. I submerge myself and emerge, with hardly a gasp or a cry, the change in temperature is barely perceptible now. And I wonder if I’ve finally learned something, or come to the Stadtbad too often.