Bathing with Strangers

Leave Your Insecurities at the Door in Szechenyi

First Impressions is a Prague Wandering series that chronicles the early days of expatriate life for young Americans studying in Prague. The series is intended to capture the shock and awe that many foreigners experience when venturing outside their comfort zone.

 

By Laura Zablit

People of every age, size and body type relax in the outdoor bathing area at Szechenyi Baths in Budapest. Photo courtesy of www.szechenyifurdo.hu/

People of every age, size and body type relax in the outdoor bathing area at Szechenyi Baths in Budapest. Photo courtesy of http://www.szechenyifurdo.hu/

It doesn’t matter how old, young, poor, or rich you are when you’re sitting in the same thermal waters as everybody else. Faced with unabashed near nudity at every tight turn in the steaming, opaque baths, it was a matter of surrendering to the sight of bodies packed into the water and finding beauty in it, rather than experiencing a conditioned response of discomfort.

Budapest is famous for its Turkish-style baths. The geothermal waters are said to treat degenerative joint diseases, arthritis, and even digestive problems. The Szechenyi Baths, which cost about $19 per day, consist of 18 different baths, each unique in size, shape, depth, composition, and temperature. At 101 years old, Szechenyi is one of the biggest natural hot spring spa baths in Europe, and it certainly felt that way, wandering around the seemingly endless complex. The baths link indoors through a Neo-Baroque palace, leading to two large outdoor pool spaces in the courtyard area. Saunas and steam rooms at various temperatures are tucked into every corner, many of which I missed on my first round.

Because the Szechenyi Baths are so extraordinary, they attract enormous crowds. But unlike most major tourist attractions, these baths continue to be frequented by locals. Visitors are exposed to “a cross section of Hungarian society there, as old, young, poor, and rich all go regularly, and it is a great people-watching place,” according to Vanda Thorne, a professor of sociology at New York University in Prague.

Every pool – except for the 18-degree Celsius (64-degree Fahrenheit) pool with one quiet man in it – was filled to capacity with bathing suit-clad men, women, and children, I could not look anywhere but at another person. Sometimes this person was two inches from my face and body. And yet I felt less violated that I do fully dressed on a New York City sidewalk, where ogling and harassment are the norm.

People were in no rush. Everyone had paid their entry and intended to enjoy it. In the neck-deep water, they moved sluggishly, if at all. Businessmen discussed deals, parents looked after children, young Hungarian men hit on tourists. Couples abounded—sharing kisses and intimate conversations. Old men and women sat with their friends, talking or not talking, looking patiently on.

“A cross section of Hungarian society, as old, young, poor, and rich all go regularly, and it is a great people-watching place.”

Though there were young American tourists in perky bikinis, the tone of the baths is set by the locals, who exude an almost raunchy contentedness with their bodies. Back in the United States, at pools or beaches, the waterside is flooded with the taking of photos, the sucking in of stomachs, and the avoidance of bodily contact with strangers. But here, sitting on the steps, the women leaned back, exhaled, and bared their varicose veins with pride. Big old men in speedos unabashedly revealed bulbous stomachs as they walked from bath to bath. And no one pretended to be above the sensation of shivering with awkward delight when entering a hot bath.

Regardless of political, social, or economic life outside of Szechenyi, within the cloak of cloudy minerals, we were all just bathers, among the hundred million who have relished the warm medicinal waters at the complex throughout the century.

It took more than an hour to finish one round of the baths, testing out each one and ending up back outside. After that, I was exhausted and thoroughly saturated by the experience.

Yet, I chose to double back and try the whole round again. Though on the way over to this exit, I had been with my three travel buddies, they chose to unwind in the outdoor bath, and I was left to wander the complex alone.

The baths were starting to have the addictive allure a McDonald’s Playplace. I was free to run around and jump in this very hot bath, that very cold tub, this sauna with flashing colorful lights, this pool with a Jetstream that pushed me around and around in a fast-moving circular current. I even proudly submerged my body in the coldest pool and relaxed in it for what felt like three minutes, but may have been thirty seconds. Directly following, I squealed and leaped out of the water, much to the amusement of the quiet solo man.

Photo courtesy of szechenyispabaths.com.

There are 18 Szchenyi baths of different shapes, sizes, and temperatures. Photo courtesy of szechenyispabaths.com.

I had thoroughly enjoyed the myriad of indoor baths when I spotted two saunas, side by side. One was labeled 50-degrees Celsius (122-degrees Fahrenheit), and the other 60-degrees Celsius (140-degrees Fahrenheit). In saunas I am always worried about my stamina, worried I would pass out and no one would realize and help me. I’d never before tested my limits. I decided to try the cooler sauna. I would go in for just a minute, and then leave to enjoy more pools. No use getting lightheaded or nauseous on a weekend trip.

I opened the wooden door to silence. The four people sitting inside said nothing, and were in various states of heated relaxation. I sat down and waited. Within moments, I began to wonder if I was already overwhelmed. I still wanted to try the hotter sauna, however. I would get up, walk through the connecting door to the other sauna, and walk straight to the door on the other side to get out.

I entered the hottest sauna in Szechenyi. Seven or so frequently rotating groups sat on the raked wooden benches, a few actually talking. I didn’t even get to the part of the plan where I walked straight to the exit before I realized I was fine. Somehow the more extreme temperature made me feel stronger. And so I sat down.

I sat as the brunettes in boardshorts left. I sat as the Brazilian women came in. I sat as a mother checked for her family members, and then left again. I sat as the big man with grey hair sat the whole time, until he, too, left, and I was still fine. I could feel sweat dripping down my back, and through my bathing suit. I periodically had to push salty water out of my eyes.

But while I usually detest sweating and avoid it at all costs, this time, I relished it. My body was proving its strength, with greater stamina than I had known myself capable of. I didn’t have to suck in my stomach. I didn’t have to pat my wild hair in place. All I had to do was sit, exhale, and release my muscles. And so I did.

Laura Zablit is in the NYU College of Arts and Science and Tisch School of the Arts Class of 2016. Her hometown is San Diego, California.

This article was adapted from an assignment for the travel writing class at New York University in Prague.

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Categories: Fall 2014 Issue Number 2, First Impressions, Travel

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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