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The little differences: 6. Bare facts

Peel all their layers of clothing away, and you will still find quite a difference between locals and expats – in their attitude towards being exactly what they then are: naked.

By Martin Pütter

Recently, while fishing not far from Basel, I had an unusual experience. I had been working my way downstream, wading through the river, when all of a sudden a stark naked woman appeared on the bank opposite me and stepped into the water. Instead of screaming and disappearing into the nearest bush (which is what I would have expected) she just stood there, up to her knees in the water and with hands on hips, and asked, in proper German: “Are you going to fish here long?”

It turned out that she just wanted to do a bit of skinny-dipping in that slow-flowing and deep pool that I had just been fishing. While we discussed the pros and cons of swimming in this river – me in my full fishing outfit (which includes hip waders, fishing vest and hat), she wearing nothing but a smile – her partner appeared, equally stark naked. Seeing there was no way I could catch any fish from that now overcrowded pool, I made my way downstream, adding this episode to my mental file on “Unusual experiences while fishing”.

The very same day many Baslers had a similar experience. As part of her performance during Basel’s famous arts fair ART BASEL, artist Milo Moiré had walked through the city – naked, her body painted only with the names of the items of clothing she would have worn had she been dressed. Now what struck me here was not her walking naked through Basel, it was the newspapers’ coverage the next day. The UK broadsheets – and some of the tabloids – would only have shown her from behind, and some of the other tabloids would only have shown the top half of her body (from the belly-button up), including the publication that “invented” the page-three-girl. The local papers, however, had no inhibitions in showing her fully nude both from behind and the front, and also a photo of her with one of her artist friends painting the word “slip” onto her body where she would have worn it.

These are just two very specific examples of what could be regarded as a different attitude towards nakedness. Another such attitude difference between locals and expats manifests itself with a visit to the sauna, or while having a massage. My friend and colleague at The Basel Journal, Mary, once admitted that she did not know whether “all Anglo-Saxon culture is as puritanical as we Americans are”. For her, entering a sauna naked is unthinkable – so when she wanted to go to a sauna in Basel wearing her bathing suit she got a surprise: “I was told that no bathing suit was allowed in the sauna because – and I had to stop breathing when I was told this – I could get fungus if I were clothed.”

Now, although this may not the place to discuss whether this really is the case, I just would like to add what Mary said: “I have managed to reach the age of 50 while wearing a swim suit in all saunas, and despite all those decades, I have never spawned any kind of fungus in the process.” Nevertheless, the fact is: the Swiss – and the Germans even more so than the Swiss – have no qualms about being fully naked in a sauna. That can create some awkwardness when they want to visit a sauna abroad, particularly in an English-speaking country. During Euro ’96 in England the players of the German football team used their hotel’s sauna – of course, with nothing on. Other hotel guests were horrified, and so were the British media – or maybe, in true footballing manner, they just made a right meal out if it.

Or take massage, for example. I remember what my late friend Habib once told me. For many years he had worked as a masseur at one of Basel’s top hotels. Often guests from the USA asked for a massage, and he always got shocked reactions when he told them to undress. If he was lucky, Habib was able to explain that he could not apply massage oil through clothing, and he would cover his clients’ bodies with towels, only uncovering that part of the body being massaged. However, Habib also told me the case of one US lady who insisted on keeping her nightgown on for a back massage – in the end he refused and walked out on her.

I also have enjoyed receiving a massage – still do, actually. It really helps to get all the knots and bruises out of my muscles after having either played or refereed a rugby match (best preceded by sauna, I say – the massage, not the match). For me, lying naked on a massage table, with either torso or legs (and private parts) covered by towels is no problem – and if the massage is good I usually fall asleep. But once, while on business in Glasgow, I also fell into that trap of cultural differences. Having seen that my hotel also offered massage, I booked one. The masseur was a young woman, and she must have got a massive shock when I, still ignorant of Anglo-Saxon attitudes towards nakedness, tried to take my last piece of clothing off – or if it was not shock, why did she almost scream her head off? To cut a long story short: a (male) colleague took her place, I kept my jocks on, and I finally got my pummelling (but there was an half-hour gap between her scream and the start of my massage …).

Sometimes it is indeed shocks that get when such little cultural differences manifest themselves. Even Mary admits that, for her, “it was a shocker”, her first visit to a sauna in Switzerland. However, “I have, since that first time, come to know that a lot of Europe [believes] that public nudity is no biggy,” she says. OK, it might not be a big thing – but I say it is still a rarity to see a naked woman while fishing, whether here or in an English-speaking country.

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