Letters From Berlin

Saturday, November 8th


As uncomfortable as it was for me to shower naked with the rest of the guys in my class as a prepubescent ninth grader, I never would have showered with my clothes on. Some guys do. I never saw this back then, when I was a kid, but I have seen men recently do this in the showers at the midtown YWCA in Minneapolis, and in Elixia, a private club where I swim in Berlin. And it was policy in the showers for the pool in Galway, Ireland. You could not choose to be naked around anyone.

It all has to do with how we view our bodies, and modesty. As anyone who knows me knows, I don’t put a lot of stock in modesty. I like to be naked, and I like to be naked around other naked people. In Minneapolis this was only possible in locker rooms. When possible, I belonged to a gym with a pool where there was more to do in the locker room than shower. Saunas, steamrooms, whirlpools are all great places to be able to hang out, in the most literal sense, and relax with others. Conversations happen when you are naked and taking your time that don’t happen otherwise. In Minneapolis, this is always a same sex environment. Being gay, I enjoy having a same sex naked environment. There is always an undercurrent of sexual energy there. I think sexual energy is good. The one mixed gender exception to being naked in Minneapolis is at the (not legal) nude beach at Twin Lake. This provides for a curious situation. Gay men get to legally hang out, be naked together in Minneapolis, but not heterosexual men and women. In California and New York, as in Minneapolis, I have found that the nude beaches seem to sort themselves out to where there is a mixed section, and a gay area. (I will let someone else write about this from the lesbian and transgender points of view).

In Ireland I did not find a nude beach. I didn’t even see naked people in the locker room in Galway. There was just one locker room for everyone. Inside that, there were numerous changing rooms, where you get out of your clothes, and into your swimsuit. Then you shower in your suit in an open mixed shower room, or out of your suit in one of two private individual shower rooms. Hmmm, I thought, this is a different appoach to a locker room. So far only this is the only locker room I have seen that seems to be ready to deal with more than two genders.

Here in Berlin, I have found yet other approaches to locker rooms. At the public pool in Krummestrasse there is a nude swim night weekly. As usual, there is a men’s and a women’s locker room. People go into the locker rooms in their clothes, and come out to the pool naked. Only the dressing and undressing is gender segregated. At Elixia, where I swim now, there are also the standard two locker rooms. But, there is a wellness area, which combines a dry sauna, a sauna for water on the rocks, an area with chaise lounges to relax, and a steam room - for all genders together. Clothes are not allowed in the saunas or steam room. It was a bit disorienting at first, being around women (and men) walking around naked. I only knew this from nude beaches. Here we were indoors and sweating. I got quickly used to it, it seems a very natural thing, but the tensions shift.

For example, there are many Turks who live in the neighborhood near the gym. Turkish men go to the gym, and are more likely to shower in the men’s locker room with clothes on (like a swim suit, or work out shorts). Some use the wellness area, naked. I have seen no Turkish women in the wellness area. I think I have seen a few Turkish women in the pool. Clearly where Turkish culture meets German culture on body issues, gender norms are very different.

And in this wellness area the sexual tension of a same sex men’s locker rooms is gone. This is the least sexual gym I have ever experienced. From my point of view. A man entering the sauna the other day was clearly having a different experience. I observed him as he moved swiftly into the sauna to sit down, trying to conceal his erection. I thought, hmmm, avoiding sexual arousal always seemed to me an unfair challenge that we as gay men face in locker rooms. I always wondered how straight men would fare being naked around naked women they found attractive. It made me smile to see that at least one straight man was not up to the challenge, or should I say, that not all straight men had it down.

pscully on 11.08.03 @ 02:58 PM CET [link]

Wednesday, November 5th


Last week I was in Warsaw, Poland, for the second time in my life. The first time was twenty five years ago. From that first visit, my memories are of a pretty bleak place. That was the late 1970´s, and the city that Hitler had ordered destroyed as the Nazi army retreated had been rebuilt. But it was mostly a stark socialist architecture. And, to be fair, it was January. I was approached constantly on the street “Changement privat? Change money? Geldwechsel?” People looking for western currency were far bolder than their socialist brothers in (east) Berlin. Things felt kind of desparate.
Still, I have fond memories. I was there to be the best man in Keith and Bozena´s wedding. The formalities took place in the Wedding Palace. I was delayed by a detoured bus route, and almost missed the wedding, which would have meant it would not have happened. My signature was required as a witness. We had a great feast afterward in a restaurant in the old town that had been meticulously rebuilt. The restaurant was called “Crocodile”. I participated in six toasts before I realized that I could fill my glass from the other bottle at my place setting. That one had water, not vodka.
I vaguely remembered Stalin´s gift to the people of Poland, the House of Culture and Science. A maybe forty story monument of a building in the heart of the city. Only a little bit pretty, it was mostly powerful. A statement of the might of the Soviet Union to the socialist sister state. It remains today, but seems to me to actually have aged better than I would have imagined. It helps that it no longer dominates the skyline. Several skyscrapers share the skyline, and where there are no skyscrapers, there are cranes, building new structures. Construction is everywhere in Warsaw. I took a long walk around Stalin´s building. There are many allegorical statues, and I was struck that the men in these statues are pretty to the extreme. Not unmasculine, but strikingly pretty. The women, by contrast, seemed to have been roughly cast, and maybe even unfinished. As if the men had been hewn of marble, and the women of sandstone, and then left to age for a half century.The women had not weathered well. Or maybe they were just drafts, with none of the fine detail of the men. Or, maybe they were meant to represent the rough peasant woman. Still, it seemed to me to be a particularly, sexist, gay aesthetic, one in which male beauty was highly refined, on artists and scholars as well as on shirtless workers in overalls from farms and the mines. Women seemed an afterthought.
I remember only one statue that represented someone older. A man, maybe a professor. Clearly, this 1954 structure was about tomorrow.
Last week, I managed to wander all over through the halls on the inside, no one asking me where I was going. Had anyone asked, I would have said, “Just curious to see the interior.” It seemed unusual that I could wander down these vast halls, no one around. It felt like there were guards missing. Now there were just a few workers taking down the aftermath of the big party from the European AIDS Conference that had been in the building two nights before. They did not seem to care that I was nosing around.
I got around to the south side of the building, and went in where the movie theaters are. I wondered, have these always been movie theaters? Maybe so. But this was clearly a different time. A recent film, about the last days of socialism in East Berlin, “Goodbye Lenin”, was showing. Outside on a tablet carried by one of the young male statues, Lenin´s name was flanked by Marx and Engels. Stalin´s name was not there. Even if it was at some point erased, he was not absent. The whole place chants: Josef! Josef! On celluloid, back inside the theater, Lenin´s bronze head is carried off through the air. I loved both the irony, and the sumptuous interior of the movie lobby.
As in Berlin, in Warsaw I was reminded of the possibility of great change happening. And happening pretty fast. It was hopeful to be reminded of this. This is the scale of change that I hope for in America in 2003. I left Minneapolis in August of 2003 with things feeling pretty bleak. As bleak as I could remember in my fifty years. The powers that be in DC seemed hell bent on war as the answer, and civil liberties and unmet social and environmental needs as the domestic casualties. Meanwhile, in St. Paul, the governor of Minnesota was working to reduce the social contract to roads. May the ideals we wished for, for those on the other side of the iron curtain, return to rule America and Minnesota. Or was it only capitalism we were wishing for? Being in Warsaw gave me hope that people can turn things around.
I asked my young host if he knew of the Crocodile. He had not been born twenty five years ago. He said he had not heard of it, but that maybe it had been up on the next square. I thought not. It seemed to me it was near where we were, so I asked an older man who drove horse and buggy for tourists. He pointed to the restaurant which my young host hád just said was nice, traditional, and a bit expensive.
pscully on 11.05.03 @ 09:57 PM CET [link]

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