Once again, I’m recording material for a BBC World Service series about naturism, presented by Dr Keon West and this time we’re in Germany. On the face of it, this particular location didn’t sound like much of a challenge – it’s an easy-going liberal country, pretty famous for its acceptance of nakedness. In fact, one of the cyclists at the World Naked Bike Ride in Brighton (the start of our foray into public nudity) described her happiness to cast off her clothes with the succinct explanation: “Well you see, I’m German!”.
I thought it would be easy and in many respects it was. There were no comments, no wandering eyes, and the gender imbalance that seems an ever-present problem, whilst there, simply wasn’t an issue.
What I didn’t count on though was a last minute interview that, spontaneously, turned into a naked wander through a public park in Potsdam. Nudity is so accepted, especially in the parts of Germany formerly within the GDR, that the moment of shedding was somewhat sprung on me. We didn’t go to a naturist area, we simply disrobed on entering the park (and in front of about forty Spanish tourists who were I think a little surprised, although to their credit they took it very well).
This was something new for me – and undertaken without my normal mental preparation – being naked in a public place, amongst clothed people, without an activity, an event or a specially designated space.
We wended towards an area used, for the most part, by naked swimmers. Our guide selected a spot shaded by trees and near the water’s edge where the swimmers were coming and going with regularity, independence and only sometimes clothing. She sat herself down gracefully on a towel, without either clothes or inhibition as I endeavoured to arrange my limbs in some fashion that didn’t leave me feeling, frankly, labially exposed. (And I can’t decide whether the fact I’ve had to coin an adverb highlights more my personal discomfort or the extraordinary nature of this mode of meeting.)
It was however a beautiful location and after a bit of recording we swam in a body of water that seemed more akin to a film set than a municipal lake, beautifully refreshing, with reeds hugging various edges of the lake and a marble palace on the opposite bank.
Fast forward to our next naked meeting – a evening playing cards at a local “FKK” club (not a relation of the Klan, but rather Germany’s brand of organised naturism, pronounced “Eff Kar Kar” and standing for Freikörperkultur, or literally “free body culture”). Here I was again naked and again seated – albeit this time on furniture – watching a group of men including Keon, entirely naked, playing rummy (sadly not the noisiest of games for a radio recording). The presence of a chair beneath my bare buttocks (indeed my entirely naked form) did help to ease my comfort, but I still found sitting naked really rather awkward.
Firstly there’s the etiquette – a towel must be placed between you and any soft furnishings, which served to remind me that human beings are essentially animals with secretions and functions that are normally (and I think also happily) forgotten under the ‘civilising’ effect of clothing. Then there’s the posture, or positioning. At least on a chair I was more comfortable than on the ground, but still my knees were either clenched resolutely together, or one over the other as I crossed my legs with unnatural and somewhat uncomfortable precision. I felt oddly exposed leaning backwards (the chairs were quite deep) and forwards too (the height of the table meant either sitting my breasts upon it, or somehow nestling them underneath it, neither of which was particularly appealing).
I ended up in a posture so bolt upright, it would have pleased any osteopath, but it wasn’t very relaxed, and I kept thinking I was being rumbled the novice by my relaxed companions, who lolled this way and that, legs akimbo, finding this situation clearly not just normal, but actively enjoyable.
We chatted in a mixture of English and German, and in so doing I discovered that the group had recently done a TV interview with an American journalist. “Ach so!” I said trying to sound both colloquial and nonchalant. Inside I was rather disappointed that we weren’t even a novelty “Und sie war natürlich auch nackt oder?” I asked, itching to know if she too had suffered for her art and fully embraced the spirit of FKK. They showed me a photo of her and five of the group. She stood out not by sex, but by covering. She was fully clothed.
I must admit a mixture of emotions.
Firstly I felt guiltily superior. I had done what she had (I assumed uncharitably) not even contemplated. Surely that made me better in some way…I’m not sure better in what way – a better journalist for going ‘method’, a better liberal, a better human being… Rapidly I dispensed with this idea. It was clearly ludicrous. Next I felt a bit of a mug – perhaps I could have avoided this whole naked business in the first place. What a tit, if you’ll pardon the expression. Next, looking again at the photo, I realised that she actually looked a bit odd, if not in fact silly, wearing clothes whilst surrounded by nakedness (“Awkward…you didn’t get the memo…?).
But lastly, I thought about what Keon and I were trying to do: to gather not just the low-hanging naked fruit (if that isn’t somehow too uncomfortable an image) but also visit some really difficult places where being naked comes with huge challenges and even at times dangers – and where to be trusted and accepted we have to meet people on their own terms, equally vulnerable, equally open, equally naked.
More generally I wondered if perhaps this other journalist was missing out on something. I’d be the first to say that it’s not easy, and that I’ve had to interrogate bizarre and minute details when approaching things naked, including my relationship with upholstery, but I’ve also grown more relaxed about my own body, and in this very blog publicly used a word that I would have avoided before this experience. Could exploring something outside my comfort zone have forced me to grow in a way that I am actively benefitting from? Or am I just posturing to avoid accepting a sadder reality, that really this is all a bit foolish. There has to be some pay off for travelling around the world, meeting total strangers – many of whom I’m not convinced will even turn up – whilst wearing nothing more than a pair of glasses and a microphone. Nicht wahr?
And for our next trip – India: a country famous, if not infamous, for its conservative, even sexually-repressed culture. I have to admit it’s a prospect that is making me somewhat nervous given attitudes to the female body in particular. But on a positive note, it’s providing me with hugely valuable and surprising material for the small talk question – “So…what are you up to at the moment?”