Strictly speaking what I am writing about here is not related to non-verbal communication as such; nevertheless it is an interaction with the German culture which I feel is necessary to share.
Over the past year I have tried my best to fit in and adapt to the cultural differences that exist between Germany and England, and for the most part I would say I have been successful in achieving this. This weekend, however, I experienced something which made me feel more British than ever – the Freikörperkultur (nudist culture).
Given the warm weather here, I often go with friends to a lake just outside of the city to relax and sunbathe but this weekend instead of going to our usual place, we decided to visit a different, much smaller lake. After we arrived, we picked an area where there weren’t many other people and we set up camp for the afternoon.
After a while, my friend turned to me and pointed out that a man about 100 metres away from us was laying there reading a book and he was doing so completely naked. This did not come as a complete shock to the system as I know full well that unlike the UK, much of Europe has a very laid-back attitude towards nudity.
That being said, nothing could have prepared me for what I witnessed next:
There were two young girls playing in the lake and they started to call for their grandma to come and play with them in the water. Suddenly an old lady, naked as the day she was born, sprang up from behind a rock and headed over to the girls. My friend and I both exchanged bemused glances and as we looked around we quickly realised that not only had the area filled up with lots of other people, but that the grandma and the man reading the book were not the only naked ones.
Being English I have mastered the art of ‘looking but not making it obvious that I am looking’ and therefore, through use of my excellent peripheral vision I was able to spot some naked ladies laying down reading magazines, as well as a naked man and woman standing up having an intense discussion about a boat out on the water. Having observed this I thought I had seen it all, until I heard a girl say to her boyfriend “oh look my parents are here.” I turned around to see the girl, her boyfriend and the girl’s parents all exchanging pleasantries whilst completely nude.
At this point my inner British prude was having a meltdown. I suddenly became very aware of my eyes and started panicking as I couldn’t remember where I would normally direct my gaze. All around me I could hear the normal conversations people were having and part of me just wanted to shout “yes, that is all well and good but by the way you have no clothes on.” Part of me also wanted to get up and use my towel as a means to shield the eyes of the children. Needless to say I did not do either of those things.
Once I had gotten over the initial shock of all the full frontal nudity, I noticed that people clearly did not care that others were naked. In fact the ratio of naked people to not naked people was so high that by wearing a bikini I was drawing more attention to myself. After about two hours of sitting there I eventually gave in and decided to go half naked (after all, when in Rome – or in this case, when in Leipzig…). I did not go fully naked as I still found uncomfortable the thought of sitting there talking to my friends with absolutely nothing on at all.
I would like to return to this lake at some point before I leave. I think that my first experience of nudist culture caught me off guard but now that I know what to expect, it will be easier for me to embrace it like everyone else does. Having said this, I still think I would find it too weird being fully naked in front of my friends so when I return I will probably go alone. If this year has taught me anything, it is that stepping out of your comfort zone is a prerequisite for fully understanding and appreciating a different culture, and for me, this experience definitely encapsulates that.